'We can do this together': UBC Engineering strives to increase female enrolment

It was after school — three or four o’clock — and the sun shone through the windows. Sajida Chowdhury was a high school senior and, like many, she didn’t quite know what her future had in store.

So, she walked to her calculus teacher’s class and picked up a whiteboard marker. Chowdhury and her teacher stood there drawing out the different paths she could take — medicine, sciences, pursuing a trade at BCIT or even getting a degree in political science to “mak[e] a difference with the UN.”

Soon, the board resembled a tangled web of potential futures. Chowdhury and her teacher circled and crossed out different career paths, trying to figure out what she would apply for.

“Have you considered engineering?” asked her teacher. Chowdhury, a now fourth-year integrated engineering student, said that moment set it all in motion.

“[He said] that if you go into engineering, you potentially might be able to … facilitate a cool environment in a field that hasn’t really been broken [into by women] as much as other fields have,” recalled Chowdhury.

After hearing that, she was sold.

According to a 2019 Statistics Canada report, 25 per cent of women and 52 per cent of men with a STEM degree studied engineering. Women in engineering made up 24 per cent of all bachelor of applied science graduates nationwide.

Men made up over 58 per cent.

In an attempt to increase female enrolment at UBC, the Faculty of Applied Science committed in 2015 to increase female enrolment to 50 per cent by 2020.

The Ubyssey previously reported the faculty, in addition to student organizations, intended to create opportunities for young women to discover engineering, with a focus on awareness and early age outreach.

2022 enrolment remains under the faculty’s 2020 goal. Only 34.5 per cent of engineering undergraduate students identify as women.

‘The only girl in my classroom.’

Looking around her high school physics classrooms, Chowdhury noticed she was often the only girl.

But, when there were other women in her STEM classes, she often became friends with them. This hasn’t changed since she started at UBC. Chowdhury knew there would be fewer women than men in her classes, but she knew she could overcome the challenge of being lonely as a marginalized person by connecting with others who shared her experiences.

“Having girls in my [applied science] groups was a really great thing and helped me feel like ‘okay, cool, we can do this together,’” said Chowdhury.

Chowdhury scrolled through her second-year integrated engineering group chat, counting how many women were in the cohort. She said around 25 per cent of the cohort were women.

The male-dominated courses bothered her, but Chowdhury started messaging women in the cohort to make friends. Two years later, these women are what she calls her “partner[s] in crime.”

“Seeking female kinship … is something that really helps engineering feel better,” said Chowdhury.

Sixth-year electrical engineering student Katie Seifert also noticed a lack of diversity in her first-year engineering classes.

“I definitely noticed that there were more men than women,” said Seifert. “And a lot of people asked me about that when I started … I found that generally the guys were pretty welcoming, and it wasn’t too big of a deal.”

Seifert highlighted that her male group mates asked how they could support marginalized engineering students.

But, one encounter that struck Seifert as inappropriate was in a second-year applied science class. Her professor, like many, told stories about his life while lecturing.

“One day, he decided to tell us a story about how he picked up a bunch of models when he was young and on a yacht,” said Seifert. “[The class] was already almost entirely men … And he told the story of getting all of these models to come home with him, as if he was the conquering hero of the story.”

As the class cheered, Seifert felt disgusted. Why would a professor say something like that?

Looking around the lecture hall, Seifert saw the faces of other women who looked disturbed and uncomfortable — it “certainly didn’t make anyone feel welcome in the environment,” she said.

‘Role models are critical.’

In addition to a lack of representation within the engineering student body, Seifert and Chowdhury noted the lack of female professors.

Seifert said she noticed that “pretty much every professor was a man, generally even an old white man.”

“I had maybe one female engineering professor [in my first year],” said Chowdhury. “Pretty much everybody who was teaching my classes was a man or male-identifying.”

Chowdhury also said that her male professors reach out to male students more often, leaving some female students feeling unsupported. “Potentially, the male profs are just too scared to talk to you because you’re a girl or just don’t feel like you’re worth putting effort into,” she said.

Dr. Sheryl Staub-French, a civil engineering professor and the applied science associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion, is at the forefront of increasing female representation in engineering — both in student enrolment and faculty.

In 2019, the Faculty of Applied Science set a goal to hire more female engineering professors. According to Staub-French and Ubyssey reporting, the percentage of women in assistant professor positions in the faculty fell from 36 per cent in 2018 to the current 34 per cent, while full professor positions increased from 9 per cent to 13 per cent in the same period.

Staub-French said women currently make up 34 per cent of all engineering faculty across both UBC campuses. According to Engineers Canada in 2020, only 16.6 per cent of engineering academics were women.

“There have been systemic barriers preventing women from entering university, Indigenous people from entering university,” said Staub-French. “These systemic barriers are slowly getting lowered, but we’re seeing the result of those barriers in academia.”

In 2014, UBC Engineering’s gender diversity goals led to Staub-French’s appointment as the inaugural holder of the Goldcorp Professorship in Women in Engineering at UBC — the exact position that allowed her to lead a recruitment strategy that would increase the number of women enrolled in engineering.

Five years later, in 2019, she became the dean’s advisor on equity, diversity and inclusion, and a year later, the first associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion.

Staub-French noted that UBC Engineering did not meet its “aspirational” 50 per cent goal because it was intended “as a way of mobilizing people, mobilizing resources, elevating [female enrolment] as a priority.”

Staub-French is looking to see more women in engineering — both as students and professors — stating that reaching that 50 per cent goal is “critical” to the UBC Engineering strategic plan.

The strategic plan prioritizes inclusive leadership and respectful engagement, which includes supporting “vulnerable populations with a local, community focus” and a “strong emphasis on community engagement and culture-building,” according to the plan.

Staub-French believes that engineering is on their way to the goal of 50 per cent female enrolment, but decades of entrenched patriarchy are bogging them down.

“Is it achievable? I absolutely think so. But we’re working against this huge societal challenge. It’s not just us, it’s not just engineering,” said Staub-French.

Dr. Agnes d’Entremont, a mechanical engineering professor and the faculty advisor of Women in Engineering UBC — a student-led, faculty-backed organization — echoed Staub-French in advocating “a societal shift.”

“We’re doing outreach, not only to children and youth, but to their teachers,” said d’Entremont. “What we’re trying to do is position engineering as something where you can make a difference in people’s lives.”

“We can’t serve society if we don’t reflect society,” she said.

‘It’s just not always up to the men.’

Moving forward, Chowdhury would like to see the faculty spending more time connecting students with professors through talks and social events.

She said she wishes “the faculty could somehow get together and create more spaces for women to connect with each other.”

Seifert said it’s difficult to name one single thing to change to make engineering more equitable since it’s a systemic issue, but “a big step [in changing things] is just becoming aware of these issues and thinking about it.”

Chowdhury knows the barriers she faced came from the systemic discouraging of women from STEM — represented by hundreds of moments, from isolation in male-dominated university classrooms to media representations of women that never represented her true potential.

She said she wants to inspire young girls and let them know that they can be engineers.

“It’s just not always up to the men.”

This article has been updated on March 27 at 11:12 a.m. to clarify that Dr. Agnes d’Entremont is a mechanical engineering professor, not a chemical engineering professor. The Ubyssey regrets this error.